Watching Bezos: The future of books can be traced in acquisitions

Yesterday fellow blogger Ron Shevlin published an open letter to Jeff Bezos, proposing that Amazon should start giving away Kindles. He proposed that giving away their ebook device would be offset by the incremental ebooks they’d then sell, in a similar way to giving away razors as a way to sell high-margin blades.

I’m of the opinion that, unlink razors, ebooks are too much of a niche product to take off in any scalable way. It was author and blogger Nick Hornby who helped me see the light, when he pointed out that an ebook is a high-tech solution solving problems for a largely low-tech market segment.

Social Networks for Book Lovers

Instead, I think the future of publishing — regardless of whether the ink is real or virtual — will be better advanced through social networks designed for those passionate about books. Notably, I’ve been tracking Goodreads, and the 18-month-old Shelfari.

Jeff Bezos has been watching as well. Today we learn that Amazon just acquired Shelfari, three weeks after acquiring another competitor in the space, AbeBooks.

It’s a shrewd move for Amazon to shift more marketing dollars toward online social networks. If only for this reason: As true book lovers become more of a rarity, the urge for them to congregate will grow.

Long before the day when book lovers warm to a digital book, they will welcome a digital way to connect with other readers.

Nick Hornby on why no one is flocking to buy ebooks

A few weeks ago I faced the daunting task of buying a friend a book for his birthday. The challenge: By his own confession, this friend is not a book fan. Most years he’s one of the third of American adults who never picks up a book. But this year he wanted to start reading again.

So imagine how thrilled I was when in a flash of inspiration I realized I could convert my friend — a 36-year-old mechanic — into a rabid reader. I could hook him on one author’s books as surely as I could if he were an eighth grader and had never picked up Rowling’s Harry Potter series. The book I was thinking of was High Fidelity by Nick Horny. Although it’s not my favorite of this author’s (that’s reserved for How To Be Good), it is perfect for any man who has ever loved and lost and realized he’s done it in a most boneheaded fashion. And who is willing to laugh about it. Hard and often.

Hornby wins readers over by being brutally honest and extremely bright. Maybe it’s just me, but he strikes me as someone I could picture having a pint with down at the pub. (Yes, he’s British, but the film based on High Fidelity shifted in setting from a London record store to one set in Chicago, and stars John Cusack and a then-unknown Jack Black — it travels across the pond surprisingly well).

I reveal all his because Nick Hornby has a blog, and in it he recently listed all the reasons why book publishers should neither look at e-books as a threat or a salvation. In his view, the latests ebook reading devices, Amazon’s Kindle and the iRex Illiad, are non-starters. Here’s a demo video of the latter product:

Here is an excerpt of Hornby’s explanation of why ebooks won’t fly off their virtual shelves any time soon:

  1. Book readers like books, whereas music fans never had much affection for CDs. Vinyl yes, CDs no … For readers, a wall lined with books is as attractive as any art we could afford to put up there.
  2. E-book readers have a couple of disadvantages, when compared to mp3 players: When we bought our iPods, we already owned the music to put on it; none of us own e-books … [And] so far, Apple is uninterested in designing an e-book reader, which means that they don’t look very cool.
  3. We don’t buy many books – seven per person per year, a couple of which, we must assume, are presents for other people … The advantages of the Iliad and the Kindle –- that you can take vast numbers of books away with you – are of no interest to the average book-buyer.
  4. Book-lovers are always late adaptors [sic], and generally suspicious of new technology.
  5. The new capabilities of the iPod will make it harder to sell books anyway. How much reading has been done historically, simply because there is no television available on a bus or a train or a sun-lounger? But that’s no longer true.

Sadly, I think Hornby is again spot-on. Except for one category, I don’t see ebooks immediately selling in any sort of numbers. That exception is business books, which can be far more useful as searchable reference sources than as comforting fireside yarns — or in Hornby’s case, exhilaratingly and often hilarious ones.

Vibrant reading list sites suggest there is hope for book publishing

In his long career, Si Newhouse has shown shrewd business acumen. In the 1990’s, when many said it couldn’t be done, he pulled off an impressive turn-around of New Yorker magazine. This was accomplished in part by hiring Tina Brown, whom Michael Kinsley has called “The very best magazine editor alive.” At the time she had done a similar remake of another Conde Nast property and money-loser, Vanity Fair.*

While Newhouse was working his magic on these magazines, he was also busy in book publishing. But here he was selling off, not rehabbing.

He sold Random House, his company’s huge and respected book publishing unit. The financial calculus was unmistakable: With a few notable exceptions — such as Wiley Publishing (the folks behind the brilliant For Dummies series) — the business model of book publishing cannot generate profit margins that more modern media such as films are commanding. With the rising cost of printing and shipping, this will likely remain the case until e-books such as the Amazon Kindle become easier and more affordable.

So what do you do if you’re a Si Newhouse wannabe? What if you wish to make your reputation and fortune in books?

The leaders of two enterprising companies have decided to ignore the headaches of production and focus instead on bringing readers together. Although the viability of these two businesses will continue to be in question, they have survived their crucial first year. was a year old in January, while will mark its first anniversary in a week.

As anyone who has ever joined a reading club knows, in spite of the reclusive nature of reading, book lovers can be a surprisingly social breed of bird. Like so many distinctive tail feathers, they flash their lists of favorite books and authors as a way to bond.

Reading lists, and the opinions associated with them, can become an obsession. Take recording artist Art Garfunkel. His web site includes a reading list, in chronological order, of every book he has read in the last 40 years. The list tops 1,000 of some of the most respected books in literature (“I avoid fluff,” Garfunkel recently told a reporter).

Art Garfunkel has a habit and he has it bad

Is the urge to list online an act of ego, OCD, or intellectual outreach? Or a little of all three?

The founders of GoodReads would tell you that Garfunkel is merely trying to display his tail feathers on a more world-wide strutting ground. And they’d point out he is not alone in this instinct to share his list online. GoodReads currently sports over 300,000 members. On average, only one in five online community members is truly active. But those who are active on GoodReads are extremely so.

The site reports that more than one out of a hundred members (3,708) have taken the time to review J. D. Salinger’s Catcher In the Rye. (This number is extrordinary for such an “old” book. Slightly fewer people – 3,641 – reviewed the first Rowling book, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.) Below is a comparison of the two sites in terms of Page Views, according to (Click to expand the thumbnail below.)

Click to expand GoodReads vs Shelfari, in estimated page views

It’s ironic that social networks built upon a moribund business model may soon become future sweethearts of venture capitalists. Whether this is so will depend on the speed with which the internet becomes as effective an e-book delivery system as it is virtual reading club.

* At the New Yorker she introduced such innovations as the following:

  • Short articles, so they could be mostly read in one sitting
  • An edgier aesthetic, guided by Pulitzer-winning graphic novelist Art Spiegelman and a slew of new editors
  • Actual photography in the editorial space. (I’m not kidding. What’s more, some of these photos were– Gasp! – in color)